Samir Amin: Scholar and Activist for Global Socialist Transformation

Volume 17, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/07/2020
Peter Lawrence

Emeritus Professor of Development Economics at Keele University, UK. He is a founding and current editor of the Review of African Political Economy, to whose first issue Samir Amin contributed.

Samir Amin devoted his life’s work to the analysis of global capitalism. A scholar-activist and committed Marxist socialist, he identified with and engaged in the struggles of the peoples of Africa in particular, but generally against that system. His 1974 monumental two-volume study, Acccumulation on a World Scale, on the relationship between the developed capitalist ‘centre’ and the less developed but still capitalist ‘periphery’, followed the earlier pioneering conceptiual frameworks of Raul Prebisch and Andre Gunder Frank.  He argued that the unequal relationship between the centre and periphery was an integral part of the process of capital accumulation at the centre.

Amin followed Marx in arguing that capitalism had by its very logic to incorporate more markets and populations in its incessant quest for profit, becoming increasingly monopolistic and contradicting the simple mainstream economic theories of the benefits of competition. He argued that Capital’s expansion into pre-capitalist formations dominated but also ‘blocked’ their transition to metropolitan capitalism. Instead, these economies transitioned into ‘social formations of peripheral capitalism’ in which the ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ sectors were an integral part of global capitalism. The centre’s autocentric economies produced technologically advanced capital goods in order to manufacture mass consumer goods for the its populations while the periphery exported primary products resources for export to the centre, thus financing the imports of consumer goods for a small elite. The periphery produced some consumer goods but for small markets while the producer goods were imported, maintaining the centre’s control and inhibiting peripheral countries following an autocentric development path.

Amin’s later work took in the ’new stage of imperialism’:  the process of globalisation through which world capitalism became a ‘system of [five] generalised and globalised monopolies’ concentrated in the ‘Triad’ of the US, Europe and Japan: technological monopoly of large corporations supported by the state especially in the defence industries; financial control of global financial markets; monopolistic exploitation of natural resources around the globe; monopolisation of the media; and finally monopolisation by the United States of military weaponry of mass destruction.  These developments turned the industries of the global south into subcontractors creating a world of monopoly profits and cheap labour, a concentration of capital in a few global corporates and a global plutocracy getting even richer by speculating in financial markets with increasing inequality between and within nations, in short, a ‘declaration of war’ on the peoples of the world by monopoly capital. The system was now ‘imploding before our eyes’ under the weight of its own contradictions.

So what was to be done?  Amin outlined an ‘audacious programme for the radical left: the social ownership of the monopolies with democratic management involving suppliers and consumers, especially peasants in peripheral economies, and other interested parties related to them; the de-financialising of economies under similar democratic control as the monopolies, abolishing the trade in speculative financial products and requiring  banks and other financial institutions to conduct business – especially  mobilise savings and channel investment funds - to needed productive activities. Amin’s third element in the programme, de-globalising international relations, brings us to Amin’s concept of delinking. This was not advocating autarky but withdrawing from the ‘world capitalist law of value’ and moving to an ‘autocentric national development’: abolishing monopolistic industrial and agricultural private ownership of land and factories, making peasant agriculture the base of the economy, promoting more equal income distribution especially between rural and urban dwellers, using a mix of technologies at appropriate periods of development, involving the people in the decisions about which technologies to use, and finally, controlling foreign capital and investment flows.

If more countries of the global South moved in this direction, globalisation would therefore be rebuilt on the basis of ‘negotiation, rather than submission to the exclusive interests of the imperialist monopolies’. A globalised system serving the market had to be replaced with an ‘alternative humanist project of globalisation’ governed by a world political system which would effect general disarmament, ‘equitable access’ to global resources, ‘flexible economic relationships between the world’s major regions’ to ‘reduce the centres’ technological and financial monopolies’ , including the ‘liquidation’ of the three international financial institutions: the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, and finally with a global parliament, leading to greater global equality.

However, Amin argued that the proposed changes in strategies against imperialism could only start at a national level where movements for greater socialisation of economic management were well developed but that they also needed to develop solidarity across the Global South to defeat the Triad’s project of military domination of the planet. Joining up struggles nationally and internationally was crucial for this strategy to succeed with the Centre’s proletariat dropping its Eurocentrism tendency to see it first triumphing in Europe and then bringing socialism to the periphery.  This would give nation states room for manoeuvre to pursue real development policies for the whole population of a country by delinking.  

The consequent autocentric development would then require investment in integrated and complementary productive activities the nature of which would depend on country conditions, such as available raw materials. The structure of foreign trade would change to satisfy the domestic needs of the whole population. For Africa with its mineral wealth, an industrialization-based strategy would be appropriate, though it needed to be accompanied by investment in smallholder agriculture to provide a living for the rural population, basic foods for the population as a whole, and limits to rural-urban migration.

In rejecting development as a process of the south catching up with the north, Amin’s key insight was that the history of the world was one of dominant civilizations being ‘transcended’ by peripheral ones: a socialist self-centred development would eventually transcend moribund capitalism through an overall strategy of ‘self-reliance’ built up from popular bases allowing for the increasing domination of a ‘self-centred’ system.  Of course the political activity required to achieve this in the face of an active and global imperialism has and continues to be the key issue, and not just in the periphery.

In the past four decades we have lived through the triumph and the crisis of neoliberalism, the global financial monopolisation of capital, the colonisation of the State by private capital principally by the privatisation of state assets, and the liberalisation of the labour market with stricter anti-union laws and transnational freedom of movement resulting in the suppression of wages with the consequent increased social inequality and deprivation. This    points to the central contradiction of capitalism that Amin set out:  that the only way value can be realised in a mass consumption market is for the masses to have the power to consume.  As consumers’ incomes were squeezed under neoliberalism, this contradiction was resolved by increasing credit to consumers which led to the financial crash of 2007/8 and can only lead to another one. 

African economies, as the rest of peripheral capitalism, have been ruthlessly subject to neoliberal policies which have made them even less able, even if willing, to pursue a self-centred path. Moreover we are are living in a climate emergency resulting from capital’s relentless exploitation of nature, which as Amin noted, Marx had observed in his own analysis of capitalism. The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is reducing the need for physical labour, creating  ever cheaper durable consumption goods and leading to a contradiction between technology and the way society is organised, or as Marx would have put it, between the productive forces and the relations of production. This raises the obvious question of how the industrialisation of the global south will be able to create enough employment for the growing labour force.

Amin had his critics who presented statistical evidence of capitalist development in the periphery, and of a growing agricultural and industrial working class. His picture of a global capitalist centre with a powerful military machine behind it raised the question of what would destroy its power and queried his apparent utopianism. Even if capitalism was sowing the seeds of its own destruction, were there socialist forces ready to effect change as capitalism sank under the weight of its own contradictions? Amin told how during the ‘Egyptian spring’, on the walls of Cairo,

you can read in more places every day: ‘The revolution has not changed the system but it has changed the people.’ I think it’s beautiful, and it means a lot to Egyptians. We are not going to stop. And what is interesting is that this is written during the day and removed by the police during the night. In the past, slogans were written during the night and removed by the police during the day. A small fact – very small, but quite indicative!

The system is powerful, but Amin argued that it is fundamentally broken. The people are defeated but not broken and will keep pressing for democratic change. The irrepressible optimism of Amin the activist allied to the analytical strength of Amin the intellectual gives hope to both activists and intellectuals that systemic change will come from the alliance of these two groups leading popular movements for transformation.

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